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The paradoxes don't end with the name. - 71%

hells_unicorn, February 24th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1988, CD, SST Records

Being an unabashed fan boy of all things South Park, the author of this review can't help but reminisce on said show's most beloved stoner Towelie when delving into the early mythos of Soundgarden. It is particularly relevant when dealing with their moderately well received 1988 debut LP Ultramega OK, an album title that was likely inspired during a cannabis-steeped songwriting session given its cryptic wordplay, though also one that proves to accurately portray a collection of songs that struggle to present a unified sound. Coming fresh off a couple of EPs on the infamous grunge label Sub Pop and an appearance on the 1986 Deep Six split with The Melvins, these Washingtonian up and comers would find themselves seeking somewhat greener pastures (marijuana pun intended) with SST Records, another heavily punk oriented label founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, but also one that was home to doom metal extraordinaire outfit Saint Vitus. All was set in motion for the sludge, heavy metal and stoner rock trifecta of proclivities in this band's nascent sound to come together, but then, Soundgarden got high and just sort of wandered off.

This isn't to necessarily say that this band scored a dud at their first go at a full length studio offering, but there is definitely an overt sense of disunity at play here that is often brushed off as eclecticism. Like a camera that has yet to come into focus, the general picture of this band's signature amalgam of Black Sabbath's muddy darkness, Led Zeppelin's spacey psychedelic atmosphere and old school rock vibes, and the attitude laced punk tendencies inherited from the prototypical originators The Stooges up through Dead Kennedys is present, but often bereft of poise and clarity. Many of these songs seem to come and go, being quite listenable when thudding and murmuring away, but largely drifting off into the haze of forgotten melodies once reaching their conclusion. Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell's riff work ranges from competent emulation of Tony Iommi's early Sabbath style to a jumbled and bordering on pedestrian mishmash of punk and metal ideas, the former's climactic guitar soloing being largely sidelined and the latter's signature vocals coming off as more of a schizophrenic crossroads between vintage Robert Plant wailing and a borderline competent hardcore shout.

When things are on point, a bird's eye view into where this outfit would hit their stride in the early 1990s manifests, though the ongoing search for an identity here leads to a few bizarre stylistic dead-ends. The opening nod to Zeppelin with a muddy, Budgie-like trudge "Flower" presents a dark and cynical anthem that showcases some of the exotic elements of "The Immigrant Song" superimposed on a sludgy ode to the premature decay of beauty. Similarly successful ventures into the depressing world of sludgy pessimism include a competent nod to Sabbath's brand of antiwar anthems set to a punishingly slow tempo and a glass-shattering rendition of Plant and Gillian out of Cornell, and well as a smooth bluesy nod to Iommi's primordial jamming grooves in "Smokestack Lightning". However, the picture of competent doom emulation gives way to a couple of headscratcher moments in "Nazi Driver" and "He Didn't" that are so choppy and clumsily preformed hybrids of Sabbath and Zeppelin rocking with a more jazzy feel that they come off as comical, possessing a few solid riffs that are obscured by sloppy drum work and overbearingly gritty vocals.

While half of this album seems to be stylistically affixed on territory that would be further explored down the road, there are also some quirky stylistic interludes into various areas that further confute this album's already tenuous sense of stylistic unity. A handful of punk-oriented rockers in "All Your Lies", "Head Injury" and "Circle Of Power" filter in and out of the track list at random intervals, each one being competently preformed but feel a bit out of place, and latter of the three foregoing Cornell's gritty yet on point vocal approach for bassist Hiro Yamamoto to take the mic, and the result is an out of tune and generally sub-par mess of rambling yells and shrieks that make Johnny Rotten sound like Placido Domingo. Barring a bunch of brief ambient noise tracks and a lame closing song consisting of amplifier noise dubbed "One Minute Of Silence" (this was much funnier and more effective when done on Type O Negative's October Rust), the biggest stylistic question mark comes in the form of "Mood For Trouble", which can be best described as a driving acoustic meets electric nod to Rush's 2112 with a side-order of The Who and Blue Cheer, arguably the best song on the album, but also quite out of place.

If this is approached more along the lines of a compilation rather than a singular LP with a stylistic center to speak of, which is the way a sizable chunk of Soundgarden's discography should be approach anyway, it actually works fairly well. Though often times a latter day fan of this outfit who was first exposed via a few songs off of Superunknown or the somewhat more obscure yet reasonably known 1991 predecessor Badmotorfinger will have a hard time recognizing this as the same band, the overall appeal that this album will have to someone inclined towards messy sounding, muddy hard rock with a metallic gloss is definitely present. It goes without saying that this band would get better with subsequent efforts, particularly after shedding most of their punk rock affinities with the exodus of Yamamoto, not to mention getting a producer that would work to hone their sound a bit so that various rhythmic anomalies and out of tune notes that give this album a bit more of a demo character of sound would be weeded out. It's more of a historical note than something that hits the sweet spot of a timeless classic, but worth at least one listen to any stoner, sludge or hard rock fans out there.

All Your Fears are Lies - 96%

FearAbsentia, June 5th, 2017
Written based on this version: 1988, CD, SST Records

The late 80's were one of the best times for metal in my book. Thrash Metal was at it's height, and the grunge, stoner rock/metal, and death metal scenes were all kicking off. The metal scene in Washington birthed many now classic bands, with one of those bands being Soundgarden, one of the greatest metal acts of the late 80's and early 90's, and of all time. After contributing to the Deep Six compilation (which also featured grunge/sludge metal pioneers Melvins) and releasing the Screaming Life EP in '87, the band unleashed their debut studio album in 1988.

Unlike most metal bands of the late 80's, Soundgarden had zero elements of thrash or the hair bands, and instead contributed to the slowly growing doom/stoner/sludge metal genres birthed all those years ago by Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer. Soundgarden featured the fuzzy distortion of old school psychedelic rock, the dark crushing riffs of Black Sabbath and Budgie, the attitude of The Stooges, and the screaming siren of vocalist Chris Cornell that was reminiscent of 70's classic rock vocalists such as Robert Plant and Burton Cummings.

UltramegaOK is a raw, rough, rockin', and varied debut. It really takes all of the band's influences together, and makes each song stand out with it's own sound. The album opens right up with the groovy rockers "Flower" and "All Your Lies", which are among the band's best early cuts. The former has one of Kim Thayil's grooviest hooks, rumbling bass from original bassist Hiro Yamamoto, Matt Cameron's always tight drumming, and Chris Cornell's beautiful melodies. The band was already in top form on this first record. "Beyond the Wheel" and "Incessant Mace" are pure doom metal, and absolute favorites of mine and classics of the genre. The former is a haunting dirge with some of Cornell's most spine-chilling screams, and the latter song's crushingly heavy riffs sound straight from the riff master himself, Tony Iommi.

"He Didn't" has a main swirling riff that is quite reminiscent of the ominous theme song of The Twilight Zone, which fits perfectly in a metal setting. The band brings it to a speed metal pace with the shredding "Nazi Driver" and "Head Injury", with the latter being a bit punky. Both tracks have absolutely groovin' bass runs, rampaging razor-sharp guitar riffs, and Cornell's raw siren screams dominating those and most of the album. Soundgarden has done many amazing cover tunes, and this album's cover of the blues classic by Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lightning", is no exception. It's a masterpiece of soulful blues metal, with Thayil delivering metallic blues riffs with much conviction and Cornell really shows his amazing vocal range here. He goes from a bluesy croon throughout most of the song to high-pitched screams that rival Rob Halford's vocals on the early Judas Priest albums.

You may be wondering what's with the weird album name, and it partly has to do with the production. The band didn't think the production turned out all that well, hence the name UltramegaOK. I personally have no issue with the production, I think it fits perfectly fine with the raw and dirty heavy metal that this album displays. The album was remastered though, so even if it does bother you, it sounds a bit cleaner on the 2017 remaster.

Even on their first studio album, Soundgarden made a masterpiece. There are a couple of minor issues, those being the short interludes that just act as a few minutes of filler. "Circle of Power", which is a more hardcore punk-sounding track with Yamamoto on vocals, kind of breaks the flow a bit but it's still a good song that sits in okay with the variety of the album. If you're a fan of old school 70's metal, classic blues rock, grunge, or doom/stoner metal, do yourself a favor and check this album out. It's a near perfect album that deserves more attention.

Attribution: http://www.metalmusicarchives.com/review/ultramega-ok/296734

Just OK - 68%

gasmask_colostomy, November 23rd, 2016

As debut albums go, there are two camps. One trend is for a band to start their career with a release that can't be bettered, including all their best ideas and energy, ultimately living in the shadow of that debut for their whole career. The other way is perhaps a more interesting approach and summed up very well by Anthony Kiedis, the frontman of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kiedis reckons that a band's career is like making love to a woman (he thinks everything is like that, but whatever) although I don't have the quote at hand so I'm going to paraphrase: the debut album is like a first lingering glance or a sultry touch on the thigh, while the second is when you start to kiss deeply, then the third gets into heavy petting territory, before you can finally slip it in on the fourth. To be honest, I'm not sure if Kiedis was mixing metaphors with baseball, but that "slowly, slowly" approach does seem apt for Soundgarden and their Ultramega OK debut.

Of course ludicrously named, one should not be expecting the height of seriousness from such an album, as a brief scan through the song titles will be quick to corroborate. I think it's probably 'Nazi Driver' that does it for me, even if it's not that kind of driver (a slave driver according to the lyrics), but 'He Didn't' is pretty amusing all the same. Fortunately the band are pretty irreverent with their riffs as well, playing around a kind of garage/punk rock attitude with more classic chops and the weirdness of scenes still yet to come. Those scenes are not only grunge, but also art rock and the American sludge scene that gets hinted at on 'Beyond the Wheel' and some of the heavier tracks. The style of the music is thus difficult to pin down since it takes some obvious cues from older bands like Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, and even some of the more freaky speed rock bands out of the '80s, while the ongoing effect of Soundgarden's music was to turn heads in the likes of Kyuss, Alice in Chains, and White Zombie, who one would not usually mention all in the same sentence.

As a result of all those strands, this album feels messy even at (or maybe because of) a shortish length, since lots of things happen quickly and sometimes in a de-emphasized way so that you have to track back to find out what just happened. Songs bounce about between fast and slow, inspired and insipid, cliched and creative, and serious and humorous, leaving the overall effect rather wanting, as if one were watching a fashion show for both humans and animals. Whatever the case, there are good riffs to be found on the likes of 'He Didn't', 'Nazi Driver', and 'Circle of Power', which has the enraged punk shrieking of bassist Hiro Yamamoto instead of Chris Cornell's highly-strung leather yowl, though proves very effective nonetheless. There's a cover of 'Smokestack Lightning' that is not bad but wanting something more, a brooding old school doom song in 'Incessant Mace' (perhaps the least fitting title one could think of for a brooding old school doom song), and then the more laidback 'Mood for Trouble', which plays it comparatively safe. None of the main songs are downright bad, although the mixture isn't terribly helpful for the album's stability.

Quite honestly, it's difficult to analyze the album much further than that, nor do I think Soundgarden put as much thought into thinking out their music as I'm doing now. The band play pretty tight and there's no mistaking that the instrumentalists deserve high praise for keeping things together at the same time as being creative, yet it's a little tough to say that anyone stands out more than the others. Since the mix is a bit distant and fuzzy, Cornell doesn't have so much effect here as he would have on Badmotorfinger or Superunknown, mostly staying high-pitched like an older rock vocalist and lacking the power and smoothness of his later efforts. What I would definitely say about this incarnation of Soundgarden is that if you had stumbled into a pub mid-1988 and happened to catch their set, you would certainly have stayed until the end and gone home dizzy and sweaty to boot, probably determined to remember their name. This isn't a very focused first step to a relatively big career, though if you ask me Soundgarden have never totally settled down, just got lucky enough to become popular. And if you ask Anthony Kiedis, the first meeting is just the time when you know you're going to get lucky.

A Band Still Developing - 66%

Insin, April 9th, 2015

Ultramega OK is a strange one. Soundgarden’s debut shows them developing their sound, while putting in whatever they feel like onto the album. The album has been cobbled together from multiple influences and lacks much originality.

The major issue is the massive amount of joke songs. 665, 667, Circle of Power, and One Minute of Silence all fall under this category. 665 does have its humor value, just look at the reversed lyrics. This band, nicknamed “Frowngarden,” isn’t that depressing after all; 665 can be likened to Big Dumb Sex from the followup album, Louder Than Love, in terms of its lighthearted poking at cliches. Circle of Power, while possibly not intended to be a joke song, comes across as one with its display of flat-out terrible vocals, performed by bassist Hiro Yamamoto. He manages to sound like an enraged Eddie Vedder, completely drugged up, and hyperactive, while including spoken portions, all within two minutes. Leave the singing to Chris, please. The track still manages to have parts in a weird time signature – way to go, Soundgarden. None of these joke songs are too long, but they take up four out of thirteen of the tracks, and about 13.1% of the album’s run time.

The non-joke songs are not bad, but they’re lacking anything special about them. Soundgarden hadn’t found their style at that point, and while there are good riffs (see He Didn’t and Flower) and construction on Ultramega OK, nothing is catchy or really unique. They had yet to reach their classic sound of Superunknown, or even Badmotorfinger. Their punk influence is evident here, as well as a touch of blues and metal, specifically the slow and doomy songs taking guidance from Black Sabbath. The cover on here is an odd choice, but well-done: Smokestack Lightning from blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. Production is raw and could’ve used improvement. Cornell's voice is good but not at its peak, as are the intrumentalists’ performances.

Ultramega OK is the awkward start to Soundgarden’s career, and fortunately, they improved some after this. Highlights include Flower and the more acoustic-oriented Mood For Trouble. Worth checking out for the dedicated fan, not so much for the casual. All in all, Ultramega OK lives up to its name.

All Your Fears Are Lies - 70%

Twisted_Psychology, June 24th, 2009

I've always held a strong belief that many of the bands that were labelled grunge were only considered to be so on the basis of their location. If bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains were from Texas instead of Washington, they'd probably be classified as stoner rock right now! Soundgarden in particular was hard to put a label on and their debut album shows the band at their most experimental.

While future albums such as "Superunknown" may feature an eclectic variety of genres and style experimentations, "Ultramega OK" may be the most erratic album of the band's career. It could be viewed as an archetypical debut album; the production is raw and somewhat unbalanced but the band's execution takes no prisoners and wouldn't give a damn what the survivors would think anyway. Vocalist Chris Cornell's performance stands out in particular and while he's not as strong as on later efforts, he still manages to hit some of the highest notes in his entire career (Just listen to the climax of "Smokestack Lightning"). Of course, his lyrics are even more cryptic and hard to interpret than they would later become...

For the most part, the band's best performances seem to occur they stick to a more direct approach. "Beyond the Wheel" is probably the strongest track of the lot and thrives on eerily droning Sabbath-esque riffs and Cornell's contrasting moans and howls and "Incessant Mace" stands out with its slower tempo and bluesy guitar performance. This album also seems to have more punk influence than later albums and delivers some solid attitude-driven material in the form of "All Your Lies," "Nazi Driver," and "Head Injury."

Unfortunately, this album's flaws seem to mostly come from the more experimental songs on here. While the ideas behind "665," "667," and the band's "cover" of John Lennon's "One Minute of Silence" are fairly amusing (Especially the backmasking on "665"), they don't accomplish much musically and seem to disrupt the album's flow. I also side with the numerous people who believe that "Circle of Power" would've been a much better song if bassist Hiro Yamamoto's vocal performance wasn't so poorly executed. Honestly, it sounds like he was deliberately trying to make the song sound so terrible. I can only wonder what the story behind that move was...

All in all, this is a pretty interesting effort worth checking for fans of the band and "grunge" in general, but I'm not too sure if it's accessible enough to be a first purchase for a newcomer. Perhaps after a bit of editing...

Pros:
1) An eclectic and interesting listening experience
2) Great band performance

Cons:
1) Most of the experimental tracks don't seem to work as actual songs
2) The production is rather raw and unbalanced

Current Favorites:
"All Your Lies," "Beyond the Wheel," "He Didn't," "Head Injury," and "Incessant Mace"

A solid debut effort. - 80%

erickg13, September 30th, 2006

Some bands stumble on their debut album, Soundgarden doesn’t. Ultramega OK is an oddity due to the fact that it is Soundgarden in a transition era (still too unknown to be on a major label, yet too big to be on Sub-Pop, which is why they signed with SST).

I believe that if they were to have signed with a major label a lot of the quirks (some may say flaws) would have been cut out of the mix. Also it seems as though they did whatever the fuck they wanted on this record (ie 665/667) and some of this may have been frowned on by a major label. This adds to the atmosphere of the album, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

Ultramega OK is a major step up over Screaming Life/Fopp in more than a few ways. Most evident is the songwriting, it’s much stronger and feels more motivated. The production is a bright spot, it has a rough feel without feeling under produced, giving it a rough, but clean balance.

Some of my favorite songs are:

“Flower” the opener is more than likely the strongest song on this album, meriting this is the fact that it was chosen to be placed on ‘A-Sides’ their ‘best of’ album. It possesses an overly psychedelic tone, which is pulled off really well.

“All Your Lies” follows “Flower” and is a straight up punk song. It has some good guitar work and vocals, with a fairly catchy chorus.

“Beyond the Wheel” is a heavy, plodding and menacing song. It is one of my favorites because in it Chris Cornell sings at about the highest he ever has, it is just interesting to listen to, especially when comparing to later material.

“Smokestack Lightning” is an interesting cover, mostly due to the fact that it seems someone heard this on the radio and thought “hey this is cool, lets cover it!”. It has a laid back feel, which might also be a nice euphemism for sloppy. Which makes me wonder if it may not have been intended for the album.

“Head Injury” is another one that I really liked. I’m not to sure why though, it is all that good. Its just a stupid little ditty and is just entertaining to me, I guess.

While not one of my favorites, the sarcastic cover of John Lennon’s “two minutes of silence” in “one minute of silence” (Yoko Ono's part was cut out, aparently they weren’t to fond over her), is a funny little thing to wrap up the album.

Two other songs worth checking out are “Nazi Driver” and “Incessant Mace”, they aren’t really ones I like, but they are fairly good and interesting to listen to.

Overall this is an interesting debut from a great band. Anyone who claims to be a true Soundgarden fan, or a fan of early grunge, should not pass Ultramega OK by.

Ultramega OK was ok(that was cheesy) - 79%

The_Burning_Snowman, July 19th, 2006

Ultramega OK has its ups and downs but overall it was a good album considering the fact that it was Soundgarden’s debut album. The album had some well-done tracks such as “Flower”, “Beyond the Wheel”, and “Mood for Trouble” but it can’t really be compared to albums like Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. It definitely had a stoner metal edge to it and a little bit of a punk sound to go along. Chris Cornell’s vocal range on “Beyond the Wheel” is quite amazing. Well known musical artist Henry Rollins once said that Cornell could peel the paint of wall and on “Beyond the Wheel” it almost sounds like he can! The guitar work is well done, not as great as it would be on their future albums but Soundgarden was still trying to find their sound at this time. The drums are not to bad and neither is the bass. Overall the album is a must for Die-Hard Soundgarden fans, but for those who aren’t real big fans might not want to bother getting it.